As an emigrant, I live my life in two parts
I try to retain my identity as an Irish person, but I’m also a new New Zealander eager to fit in
Alice Paul: ‘Every morning I woke up wishing I was back in Ireland.’
I left Ireland 30 years ago this year with my husband and three little boys. We left because of the 1985 recession, and because my husband’s family in New Zealand encouraged us to return to them to secure a future for our children.
I was excited and up for adventure, but after six months passed I became extremely homesick. Every day I woke up to loss. I was grieving for my mother and family, my friends, the landscape, the accents, the sense of occasion and everything that I had grown attached to during my first 35 years. I was lost and lonely.
I joined the Irish society and became active in promoting Irish culture to the second and third generation Irish. In the mid-80s in New Zealand, the Irish community was mostly made up of people who had moved here in the 1950s and early 60s, so I rarely met anyone my age. But the older women in particular became Irish grandmothers to our children in time, which was a treasure.
I remained in close contact with my family and friends, through letter writing and the odd expensive phone call. I kept up with Irish news through the Irish newspapers which landed two weeks later in the mail. I worked hard as a nurse and mother, and became integrated into New Zealand society, taking active roles on playgroup and school committees.
But every morning I woke up wishing I was back in Ireland. I would immerse myself in work and life, and make new friends to drown that sorrow. We had lots of family gatherings and parties and sing songs in our house, just as we had always done in Ireland, which gave our family pleasure beyond words.
I now had four sons, who were all strongly attached to Irish culture and music. They competed at the New Zealand Féis every year. I recall a mix of overwhelming pride and tears when my son Gerry won the cup with his rendition of Kilkelly Ireland at the age of 14. Our lives have been filled with visiting Irish musicians for the past 15 years, thanks to his continued involvement in the Irish music scene.
The other immense joy was having family and close friends to visit us here. It is the ultimate compliment when people make the effort to complete a 26-hour plane journey to be with us.
I grew up in a home where my father’s brothers and sister had emigrated to England and America, so they were always celebrated when they returned on holiday every couple of years, or in my aunt’s case, after 40 years away. The exterior of the house was white-washed in preparation, and we as children watched how the returning family was warmly welcomed back home. So it’s in my DNA to celebrate visitors, and I never cease to be elated when another Irish person arrives at our home in Lower Hutt.
I lived my life in two parts, one as an Irish person trying to retain that identity, and the other as a new New Zealander eager to fit in.
I developed a deep appreciation for my new land, the one that my husband had been born and brought up in by his first generation Irish parents. The incredible freedom of speech, the acceptance of everything different, the pioneering spirit of the people and the can do attitude of everyone was an everyday wonder for me.
There were irritations sometimes of course. If I ever made a mistake or did something stupid there was the old cliché of “ah well she’s Irish and what do you expect?” But things have changed so much here now with the youthful Irish population in New Zealand in charge of many important organisations. The Irish accent is no longer a novelty.
Because of my sons’ deep attachment to Ireland, they have all returned to spend lengthy periods there. They have inherited a great love for both countries. I often tell them they are holders of the two most prized passports in the world: the Irish and New Zealand.
My best friends in Ireland are still my best friends and always will be. There is a depth and a soul that I cannot explain that connects Irish people with each other. There have been many visits “home”, and I love the new Ireland with its multicultural make-up and the broad mindedness and openness. But there is always a reminder of the old ways when we go back to the local town, and people are friendly but cagey and the weather is the most important topic.
It’s a tricky situation adopting a new land and a new culture in your mid 30s. While I believe I have had far greater opportunities here both professionally and personally, it is hard to know that if I had a crystal ball 30 years ago, would I have had the courage to make this big move?
Alice Paul works as an asthma nurse educator in Wellington, where she also presents the local Irish radio show Capital Irish. acccessradio.rg.nz